My eyes nearly pop out when I throw a casual glance out of our shop window. Sensing a near panic situation, I immediately drop the boxes on the gift wrapping table and call out to Erika, whose head is buried underneath a cupboard somewhere.
“WHAT?” She sounds annoyed. She has every right to be annoyed. Patricia has left her with a strict instruction to sort out the products in every cupboard on the shop floor and the cupboards are in a right state.
“They are here” I call out, not tearing my eyes away from the window. I see countless pairs of eyes glued to the window, scanning the shop floor.
“WHO?” She pulls her head out of the cupboard, looking irritated.
I nod my head towards the window and she follows my gaze.
“Oh!” She is startled, and immediately fixes her glasses.
“Get Aileen” She instructs me in a low but serious tone. She sprints back on her feet and slams the cupboard door shut.
“Aileen, they are here!” I discreetly call out to the back office.
“Who?” I hear Aileen shuffling some boxes on the shelves.
“The Chinese tourists” I respond inconspicuously from behind the office door.
“Okay I will be out soon”
I tentatively walk towards the front, anticipating the mad rush that is to befall on us. The feeling is a mixture of excitement and fear. Excitement is because they will spend beaucoup bucks and fear, because they can be quite demanding shoppers.
I quickly glance over to Erika who is standing by the cupboard like a bunny caught in the headlights. She takes a gulp and throws me a panic stricken look. There are so many of them. We are outnumbered. Even with Aileen’s linguistic skills, we fear the worse.
Then they come stumbling in like kids with backpacks. They come in one by one with such hurried speed that Erika is losing count of them. Then she turns around to get my attention.
“Thirty-seven!” She mouths.
Oh my goodness, thirty-seven tourists! We just hope some of them can actually speak English. Nothing makes us feel utterly useless when we can’t even converse with them. The number of times we’ve had Chinese tourists in the past has made me regret taking design class instead of Mandarin in school. It sucks having to feel so useless being a shop girl for an international brand. FYI, I learnt jack-all in design!
For a moment or two, both Erika and I are watching them, trying to see where we can catch our break. Maybe one of them will turn to us and beckon us over in English. They are all speaking at once with one another – with some rushing over to the hand care bays. I don’t know where to begin, which group or person to start with. They don’t seem to acknowledge myself or Erika – the only ones in aprons. Some of them just push past us, like we don’t exist.
I look over to the group by the hand care bays. A few ladies have picked up a set of six mini hand creams and are talking incessantly with one another. I wonder if they are describing the creams or the price. These tourists may spend beaucoup bucks but they care about the money they spend and the value they are getting from it.
Tentatively I inch forward, hoping to make my presence known. They don’t even look at me. So I try to cut in the wide space between the two ladies.
“This is a classic range of our traditional English scents” I interject, giving them a warm smile that hides my crippling fear. They stop talking at once. One of them stares at me, giving me a look that I cannot tell whether she is bemused or confused. They resume their conversation and the two ladies on either side of me push me out of the circle. Feeling stupidly pathetic, I stumble a few paces back and bump into a man who giggles at my clumsiness. I offer an apology and walk away, face flushed with embarrassment.
I turn around 90 degrees and find one woman dousing herself with a room spray tester.
“No, this is not a body spray” Rushing over to warn her. She cocks her head to one side, furrowing her brows and says something in Mandarin. I shake my head apologetically. Ignoring me, she turns her wrist over to spray more.
“It is a room spray” I quickly snatch the room spray off her hand, spray the space between us and dramatically sniff the air. “Room spray”
“Oh” Realisation hits her and she giggles. She turns to a group next to her and says something and they all laugh. I join in, laughing. They look at me, and laugh more. Then I stop laughing.
I search for Erika who is by the sink area. She is surrounded by a group that is pawing at every offer around the sink area.
“No, this is not a tissue, it is a soap leave” She is speaking very slowly, but this only befuddles the gentleman who is sniffing the leave that look deceptively like a tissue. I can’t really blame him. “No, no, it is not for face. For hands, it is for hands. Let me show you” She sighs, looking flustered. Then she gasps and turns to another man who mistakes a dubious looking round soap for a cookie. “No!! not food. It is not food. It’s soap. Soap!” She snatches the soap that is an inch away from his wide open mouth. The man looks cross and utters something angrily and walks off. Her face has gone very red. She fixes her glasses before turning to a woman who wants to use the sink to wash her hands.
I turn around, looking utterly useless and helpless at the same time. Someone taps me on my shoulder and I quickly turn around to see a woman with kindly face holding a perfume set. Then she opens her mouth and I look at her perplexed. I shake my head.
“I don’t understand what you are saying.” I take the set off her hand slowly without alarming her and turn the box over, hoping that she wants to know the price. I point to the price. She shakes and speaks again.
“Oh you want to smell it? Come with me” I gesture her over to the perfume bay. She follows me and as I look at her, she becomes confused. I pick the perfume tester and offer it to her to smell. She shakes her head again. She beckons a young man over and says something to him. He nods at her and turns to me, lifting three fingers. Understanding immediately what she is asking for, I look at her with an excited smile.
“You want three? Of course you want three.” I look over to the perfume gift set bay and realise she had picked the last one. I immediately spring to action and open the cupboard below. I pick up three gift sets and give them to her. She shakes her head and now I feel confused. She looks over to the man, giving him a tired chuckle.
“I don’t understand” I lament helplessly. “What could the three fingers mean?” I look for Erika, maybe she could help if she is not busy, but I see her drown in a sea of crowd that she can’t seem to handle.
“This is for the hands, yes. No! not for face. Not for face! Hands!” She gestures to her hand.
“Ohhh” I hear them respond.
I look back at the lady, who hands me the gift set and walks away. I turn around morosely and put the gift set away.
I catch Erika look over at me. We give each other tight smiles.
I hear the back door open and Aileen emerges out. Her eyes light up as she assesses the number of bodies around the shop floor. She fixes her head band and smooths her jet black bob.
“Ni hao” Her voice booms across the shop floor and suddenly there is a pin drop silence. The tourists suddenly stop whatever they are doing and turn around to Aileen. Aileen looks around, giving the tourists a silent nod.
At only five foot one inches, she looks mighty tall and resembles the cigarette smoking woman from Kung Fu Hustle movie, who barely smiles but has that foreboding presence that makes everyone want to kneel down before her. I am ready to kneel before her out of relief.
She turns to the group to her right and starts speaking in Mandarin and soon, everyone else on the shop floor has huddled around her. Even Erika’s customers have deserted her to join Aileen. I move to the sink area and wait beside Erika.
We don’t talk, we just wait for Aileen to command us. This is her domain now.
We watch in silence, watching Aileen lead the congregation. She knows how to operate here. We have watched her countless times to see her execute a perfect sales opportunity. Each time she has never failed. Despite the high number of bodies here today, we hold a flickering hope that Aileen can pull off this big task.
Her foreboding presence suddenly lightens as she says something funny and they all laugh in a perfect symphony. She is so generous to even allow a random tourist share an anecdote and laughs along with them before getting down to serious business. She leads the large group to the hand care bays, picking up sets of hand creams. She talks to them, shoving the sets in their hands and they take her words like it is the absolute truth. They nod at her a few times, murmuring in agreement.
“I need espresso” Erika lets out a yawn.
I look out of the window and see Pavel walking by. He sees me and waves. I wave back.
“Your man is here” I whisper.
“Who?” Erika turns around suddenly and then her face drops.
“Oh no please don’t come in” She pleads in hushed tone.
Pavel looks over to Aileen and the group and then looks back over to us. He assesses for a moment before turning to come inside.
“NO!” Erika hisses.
As Aileen begins to move, coming towards our direction, he changes his mind and walks away.
Beside me, Erika lets out a sigh of relief.
“Woo! that was close” I remark.
Aileen takes some of the people from the group over to our gift sets bays and shows them our current offers. We have 3 for 2 offers on bath and body sets. She looks over to us and gives us a subtle wink. The group picks up a handful of the sets.
“Okay girls, get ready to go behind the tills.” Aileen preps us as she walks past us, with a group in tow. We do as we are told.
Aileen looks over to the other members of the group who have come over to her, ready to purchase. She guides them over to us.
“Lana, you are putting her things through and Erika, this gentleman” We smile at our respective customers as if that would help bridge a gap between our linguistic barriers. Poor Erika, her male customer doesn’t even bother to smile back.
Aileen re-joins the other group that she left behind.
“ugh you’re kidding me” I mutter quietly as I scan Honey and Lavender hand cream set. If there is a product range that I consider the vilest thing on God’s green earth – it is this. It’s pungent, like someone hasn’t bathed in weeks. How could anyone apply this range on themselves? My customer at the till is buying five of these sets. How lovely! Not.
“Nine!” Erika whispers to me. I look over to what she is scanning. Honey and Lavender body sets. She gives me a tight smile.
The queue begins to form and despite the thrill of ringing in the sales, we are aware the queue is becoming impatient. People in the back of the queue are giving us the eye as if threatening us to hurry up. You know when I said earlier that they are the most demanding shoppers, well folks, that part comes when they are queuing up. I don’t think they want to realise we only have a pair of hands that cannot go faster than a robot! I try to remain calm.
There is a man by the shop door yelling out to them. We gather from the way he is pointing at his wrist watch that they have to be back on the coach.
“VAT” My customer yells at me, jolting me from my chain of thoughts. Probably the only word she knows in English.
“Leave that with me” Aileen instructs, coming behind the counter to get the VAT forms. She speaks to them, gesturing at them to come with their receipts to the gift wrapping table. By now, almost everyone has got what they wanted and are in the queue or with Aileen. Those who haven’t, have decided to play grim reaper by the entrance door, screeching at every passing minute. I hear mild arguments from the queue, from which I gather it is about how they are getting late.
“We need to hurry” I tell Erika.
“I have only got one pair of hands!” Erika snaps.
My next customer helpfully reminds me in Mandarin that she is late for coach by pointing at her watch. I nod and quickly scan the items and throwing them in the shopping bag.
“VAT!” She demands. I gesture over to Aileen and she runs over to the gift wrapping table. I look up and see the queue dying down a little. Oh my goodness, I will need tea after this.
“VAT” My next customer tells me.
“Yes but I haven’t put your things through!” I reply, with a tinge of impatience. Gosh!
Erika, next to me, is puffing away as she grabs a shopping bag and hurriedly putting away her customer’s purchases. She has turned a shade of pink and her face, matted from shine. I swear the store light above the counter doesn’t help us at all in the beauty department.
Finally, we are down to our last customers.
“Yes you will get it” I tear off the receipt and give it to my customer and motion her towards Aileen. I let out an exaggerated sigh.
I look across to Aileen who is filling out their VAT forms. I go over immediately to see her.
“Aileen, do you need a hand?”
“No darling I am almost done.”
She tears off the form and gives it to her customer. She exchanges pleasantries with them as they run out of the store, much to the disappointment of the man at the door who is chiding them for being late. They all run towards the coach park.
“I persuaded them to join their receipts together to get more money back.” She explains her efficiency.
“That’s a great idea!”
Aileen is wiping her brows and exhales out.
“How much have we done girls?”
Erika taps on the keyboard and scrunches some numbers on a calculator. After a minute, she looks up.
“We have taken £530 from the tourists.”
“Wow” I comment.
“Right girls, I’ll be back in a minute. I need to go next door” Aileen checks her watch and walks out.
“Oh no” I hear Erika. I twist my body around to look at her, whose face has turned sour.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
She gestures discreetly and I follow her eyes.
There, outside our window, I see Pavel talking to somebody, with his back turned to us.
“Huh, your friend is back” I remark. I turn around to see Erika jumping behind the pillar by the mobile sink.
“Oh that’s clever, like he’s not going to see you hiding behind there!” I state, sarcastically. She looks panic stricken and looks at me helplessly. “You couldn’t be more obvious”
“Is he looking over?” She asks.
I look out and then freeze.
“He disappeared. I cannot see him, Erika” I whisper. “Oh wait, I see him. He has gone over to Bar de Amigos. He’s talking to Marley.”
Erika slowly peers from behind the pillar and looks out. “Right I am going to the back office.”
“Don’t you dare leave me Erika Gloria Marino!” I shoot her a warning look.
“Tell me, what is he doing?”
I turn back to the window. Now I’ve lost him. I look again, over at Bar de Amigos. I cannot see him there. I scan through the sea of crowd, made up of bunch of foreign school children making their way back to the coach park. How can he disappear so suddenly?
“I don’t know. He was there one minute –“
“There’s too many people out there. It’s like finding Wally.”
“Shoot – I am going to the back”
At this point a customer walks in. Instinctively, I rush over.
“Good afternoon!” I greet her in a very high pitched voice. Startled, the customer looks at me and then politely nods. Startled at my own behaviour, I give her space, but follow her five paces behind.
I look over and see Erika abandoning the pillar and making a run for the customer.
“My customer!” I mouth to her.
She looks at me pleadingly and then turns a shade of horror as she turns to the entrance door. I follow her gaze. Aileen has just walked in with Pavel in tow. He looks pretty chuffed to find his favourite girl working today and his smile widens while Erika shrinks in her spot. Turning away from them, I look at her and stick my tongue out and move to my customer.
“Hello Erika, it’s been a while. Where have you been hiding?” He asks.
“Behind the pillar” I mutter, grinning at her.
“Would you like some cookies Pavel?” Aileen offers.
“Oh, okay. That’s very nice of you.”
“You wait here; I’ll be right back” Aileen goes into the back office. Meanwhile, I am following my customer around the shop without any purpose, while looking over at Pavel and Erika. Pavel notices me and gives me a wave.
“So, how have you been?” He bores his attention back on Erika, with both of his arms firmly clasped behind his back. I can’t help notice that on days like this, he has all the mannerism and courteousness of the boy next door, with his warm smile and likeable display of attention (minus the times he stares through our window hoping it would be quiet for him to come in).
“I am good” Erika’s response is short and blunt.
He nods approvingly.
“I haven’t seen you around. I thought you had left.”
“No, I have been working” Erika is fidgeting and looking at everything else in the shop but his face.
The back door swings open and Aileen comes out with a platter of cookies. She comes over to my customer and offers her a cookie, to which my customer politely declines. Then she walks over to Pavel.
“Here you go” She dotes maternally.
He looks at the platter and picks up a cookie.
“Take a couple Pavel” Aileen encourages. I look at Erika, who rolls her eyes at me.
“This is tasty” He remarks, eating his cookie.
“It is, isn’t it” Aileen gushes. “It’s our new flavour; Chocolate chip caramel”
I suddenly realise I am pointlessly following my customer. My customer has now stopped at the gift bay.
“Hi, I know you have probably seen the offers sign, just to let you know everything on this bay is on 3 for 2 offer. If you need to try any product, let me know” I speak softly, making a change from earlier. She barely nods and smile. I leave her there and walk over to Aileen.
“Hello Lana. How are you?”
“I am good, how are you?”
“I am very well. How’s your writing coming along?” For a moment I feel touched that he remembers that I write. Not a lot of people here in the Kimberly precinct actually care that I write, except him. So for a moment I forget he is the creepy guy from Erika’s nightmares.
“It’s going alright. I am taking a writing class at the local college to help me motivate myself better.”
“Oh? I don’t think you need it” His brows furrow.
“Oh trust me, I do.”
We turn around, our customer is at the door, walking out.
“Thank you, have a great day” I shout across the floor.
“You are very polite” Pavel gives me an admiring smile.
“Well, I try.”
His radio crackles and somebody calls for Pavel. He frowns for a brief moment.
“I better go, I am being called” He half turns, giving Erika one last look.
“Thank you for the biscuits. I will be back later” He nods at Aileen.
Then he walks out.
Erika lets out a frustrated sigh.
“Aileen why do you always encourage him?”
Aileen scrunches her eyes. “What do you mean?”
“He gives me a creepy vibe”
“Creepy? He is a nice guy!” Aileen shakes her head.
“Aileen, he is weird. Sometimes we see him across the precinct, watching us. He lingers on for longer than he should”
“He is harmless” Aileen dismisses it and heads to the back office with the plate.
Erika skulks to the till point, to rearrange the offers.
I look out of the window and see a face that I haven’t seen in a while.
“Oh crap” I mutter. Instinctively, Erika looks up and follows my gaze.
It’s Mad Max walking past our window, looking in. Clocking me, his eyes narrow in, glaring at me.
“Whatever” I mouth. He grins and walks off.
“Who’s that” She ask again, looking tickled with curiosity.
“Don’t get excited. That’s the crazy guy from Hillary”
“And you’re blind.” I retort. “Oh look, Pavel is coming back”
Her face drains of colour as she looks back to the window.
“Gotcha!” I grin. Oh she is so fun to tease.
© This work belongs to Kakul Ehsan Butt (2015)